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Scene from the Season Three premiere: Dialog between Queen Cersei and her brother, “the Imp”
Video courtesy HBO
Part of the cast of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” was in Seattle for the third-season premiere Thursday night, and I went along to see the stars. I am a writer for The Times’ editorial page, not its entertainment section; I write about politicians mainly, so you might wonder why the newspaper sent me to see actors and actresses. It didn’t. I sent myself. I went because I’m a fan. I’ve read the five “Game of Thrones” books and I own the Blu-Ray discs and the CDs. I have been in journalism 37 years and have met lots of CEOs and politicians. Never a movie star.
I write about serious stuff — social and political issues — and I told myself I would have to have a serious topic. “Game of Thrones” is set in an imaginary world, a medieval kingdom in which power is contested by various claimants, and is threatened by some other forces. Really the series is about power, the struggle to get it and and the prudent exercise of it.
And the sources of power are not all the same. King Joffrey has power of his position, but he is immature and more interested in brutality than governance, and others in his family wield power in his stead. Lord Walder Frey has power because his castle has the only bridge across a river. The Lannisters have power partly because they are rich, and “a Lannister always pays his debts.” There is also moral power, but in the world of Westeros it has some obvious limits.
Last year’s season had two scenes in which the characters speak specifically about power. In episode one, the queen regent, Cersei Lannister, is asking Petyr Baelish, the Master of Coin (i.e., the finance minister), for help. In putting the squeeze on him, she tells him a “story” that shows that she knows a secret weakness of his. He replies with a “story” that show he knows a much greater weakness of hers. He concludes his one-upmanship thus:
Baelish: “A simple truth I’ve found. Knowledge — is power.”
Cersei: [Speaking to her armed guards] “Seize him! Cut his throat! Stop! Wait! [a false laugh] I’ve changed my mind. Let him go. Step back three paces. Turn around. Close your eyes. [She approaches Littlefinger, who is in emotional shock and looks him in the eye.] Power… is power.”
The second scene was from episode two. Lord Varys, The Master of Whisperers [the spy chief] is speaking to Tyrion Lannister, the Hand of the King.
Varys: “Power is a curious thing, my lord. Are you fond of riddles?”
Tyrion: “Why? Am I about to hear one?”
Varys: “Three great men sit in a room: a king, a priest and a rich man. Between them stands a common sellsword [i.e, a mercenary]. Each great man bids the sellsword kill the other two. Who lives, who dies?”
Tyrion: “Depends on the sellsword.”
Varys: “Does it? He has neither crown, nor gold nor favor with the gods.”
Tyrion. “He has a sword– the power of life and death.”
Varys: “But if its swordsmen who rule, why do we pretend kings hold all the power?… Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall.”
Tyrion did not answer this riddle. The scene is straight from George R.R. Martin’s book, “A Clash of Kings,” and Tyrion doesn’t answer it there, either. This annoyed me. My quest for Thursday night was to find someone to answer this question: How would Tyrion answer that question, in his head?
Really I needed author George R.R. Martin, and he wasn’t there. The producers were there, but they weren’t taking questions. I had only the actors, and it was the wrong question for them.
( My own answer is that in a world as dangerous as Westeros—a world with much, much more lethality than our own –- a sensible killer would spare the person with the most powerful friends. That would be the king. He would kill the rich man first, because in Westeros, power commands money more than money commands power.)
What my fellow journalists seemed to be asking of the actors was about the characters they played. And the actors were ready for that. John Bradley, for example, noted how his character, Samwell Tarly, was “sexually bereft,” and seemed to appeal to viewers “who have family issues.” I spoke to Maisie Williams, who plays Arya Stark, saying that based on a web page I’d seen, her character, a 12-year-old girl, seems to be a favorite of male viewers.
She seemed surprised at this, and pleased. But why would men like Arya? She plays a prepubescent tomboy. In a time when highborn women are supposed to be unserious she is, Maisie Williams said, “a 12-year-old with a grasp of the world.” And after the first season, she has to fend for herself in that world. In the traditional sense of power, she has almost none: only her highborn status, which is an asset but also a liability: it makes her a target for kidnaping. Her real power is her wits.
An example of that in the second season is when she is in the camp of the enemy, posing as a servant. A stranger whose life she has saved is an assassin who, by his code of honor, owes her three deaths. Give me three names, he tells her, and I will kill them for you. After she gives him two, she wants to escape the castle, which will require the killing of more than one guard. She has one name left. She gives he assassin his own name — and refuses to unname him until he agrees to her terms. He complains that this is not honorable, and she looks at him as if to say, “Not my problem.”
Arya is my favorite character in the books, and Maisie’s portrayal of her is brilliant.
She is 15 — and has finished her third year of acting in “Game of Thrones.” She lives in Bristol, England, and goes to high school. Apart from her work on the set, she told me, “I’m just a normal teenager.”
The interviews were soon over. The stars left, and we all went into the theater to see episode one of season three. We fans ate it up.
HBO shows it March 31.